Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The Month That Was - May 2017

Warmth is slowly returning. Virtually all my plantings from the previous year have survived and bloomed. All my flowering trees were bursting with color. My many-times-replanted peonies came around strong. Even my indoor rose bush exploded with flowers (encouraging after last year's anemic output). And it's only going to get better as the plant fill out even more.

Lots of travel for me this month. Asheville, NC for the first time (described below). Saugatuck for the first time in years. And a quick run to Sarasota to see my brother. All three trips were swamped with rain. I have to say I have had generally very good luck with weather in my travels, but it finally caught up to me.

I did no work whatsoever on my writing project. For that I feel shame. As far as readings go, I have started My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Over the past few years this book has been something of a literary sensation in Europe and, to a much lesser extent, over here. I'm mildly enjoying it, but so far I don't see the exceptionality that everybody else does. More later.

[Travel] Rainy Days in Asheville
[Movies] Flick Check: Logan
[Cars] Acura Shakes

[Travel] Rainy Days in Asheville

The plan was to run a 15k race through the famed Biltmore Estate then spend a couple of days exploring. I had heard a lot about Asheville and its combination arty, hipster vibe and backwoods setting. That checks out. Asheville is in fact very similar to Ann Arbor, but with mountains. And better weather in the winter. You can verify it's hipster legitimacy by the foodie/locavore scene. And the stunningly green mountains are just like in the pictures. Sadly, though, it rained for close to the entire duration of my trip.

I flew into Asheville's small regional airport that reminded me how much I love flying into small regional airports. It required a plane change in Atlanta that resulted in me being sat next to a very sweet and polite Asian woman who happened to have an infant in her lap. A screaming, crying infant. In the past that would have bothered me, but no more. Now I make faces and goofy noises or do whatever I can to try to help. It' a baby after all, it's not like she can reason with it, and besides, it is quite probable that at some point in my life, I was the screaming baby. From the airport it was a quick car rental and short 20 minute drive to my hotel.

Asheville seems to be a collection of a few neighborhood areas that try to be walkable and have personalities. Not a half mile walk from my hotel was Biltmore Village (formerly called Best Village). It is peppered with fairly high end boutiques and a couple of very good restaurants. It is clearly designed as a walkable outdoor shopping center, sort of an anti-mall mall. It's very nice and convenient, if nothing all that special; certainly not a destination in itself.

Then there is the River Arts District, which is a paradigmatic artist enclave with galleries in old, repurposed factories and warehouses, and of course, the requisite character filled restaurants.

There is Biltmore Forest, which is a famed residential area. Time was your couldn't build a house here unless one of the Vanderbilt family (founders of the Biltmore Estate) approved. Now that Asheville has become a spot where celebrities can go to feel rustic but luxurious, it's the neighborhood where they build -- they say Harrison Ford is building a property now.

Lastly there is downtown which is hipster trendy -- brewpubs, art galleries, tapas bars, etc. It's a pretty cool place to wander about. Very Ann Arbor-ish, if a bit smaller and with more hills.

My personal experience with Asheville was a very wet. It rained to no small extent every day I was there. The 15k race was rained on start to finish. After the race I headed downtown to refuel and spent the bulk of my time under an umbrella. I did managed an informative visit to the Lexington Glassworks to see the rather fascinating glassblowing in action. Lunch was a mouthwateringly delicious burger at Foggy Bottom Brewery. But let's face it, I'm from Ann Arbor so I know my way around a hipster town. Nice as it was, there were no surprises for me downtown, so I didn't dawdle.

The following day I took a drive south along the famed Blue Ridge Parkway. I stopped at several overlooks and managed to down a bit further south to famed Looking Glass Falls. It is as beautiful as advertised -- the old, worn, rolling mountains of Appalachia covered in a thick verdant carpet of foliage. There is a real sense of being in the deep eternal woods, the roads and towns like oases in the endless forest. I can see how a certain stripe of people would be quite happy with a cabin in the woods, self-sufficient and far from civilization, and vow to defend it against the onslaught of progress, viz., people like me.

My last day I revisited the Biltmore Estate -- this time spending the day and taking the tours. As someone who has seen historic estates across the country, Biltmore is at the top of the list. The grounds are sprawling and astonishingly beautiful. Designed by the same fellow who designed Central Park, Frederick Olmstead, it is riddled with gardens and managed horticulture all with an eye to long term structure -- much of the landscaping came to fruition after the death of the designer. It is a tribute to the ability of flora and natural settings to affect emotional tone and general attitude.

The house itself, while impressive from the outside in a Welcome-to-Hell-House kind of way, is more pedestrian inside, notable mostly for its scope -- it contains 43 bathrooms, after all. It's presentation is rather poor, mostly due to the inexplicably low level of lighting. Honestly, is some rooms, you can barely make out the far walls.

Again it's the estate proper that is the source of entertainment. A working farm and winery. Two luxury hotels and a small village are all contained on the 8000 acres. It would be perfect for a day of cycling the paths and photography, if it wasn't pouring rain.

Even in the rain, though, Asheville had its charms. I wasn't totally enamoured, but I was charmed enough to give it another shot -- maybe in the fall for the colors and with the hope of sunshine. There is much left to explore here.

[Movies] Flick Check: Logan

Logan is certainly the best of the X-men series, excluding Deadpool of course, because like the cheese, he stands alone. In his case, Velveeta. Probably.

Logan still has evidence of the X-men's most glaring issue, which is that it leans so heavily on class warfare and oppression for motivation. You see, Logan is set in 2029 and naturally everything is dystopian. In this dystopia, there is a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, separating the good-hearted oppressed from the evil oppressors. Greedy, power-hungry corporations run the U.S. with have their own paramilitaries and no sign of government or law to hold them in check. Our heroes' mission is to make it to Canada where they will be treated with tolerance and understanding. Basically, it's the fevered worldview of your standard Twitter/Reddit poster or Huffington Post/Buzzfeed columnist. People might argue that such a vision resonates with Millennials, or some key demographic that isn't me, and that the only reason I don't see it is because I am a grizzled, detached fuddy-duddy. Fair enough.

But compare this to the gold standard Avengers who want nothing but to Save the World rather than scold it. The Avengers drama comes from having the weight of trying to save the world on the shoulders of a group of people who know they need each other, but aren't really all that fond of each other. That's a personal story, a group dynamic story. How about an even more personal action film? John Wick doesn't care about tolerance. He doesn't even care about saving the world. You and everyone you know will get a bullet in the head because YOU STOLE HIS CAR AND YOU KILLED HIS DOG. I'll take personal motives over political poses in my drama every time.

Yet this why Logan is the best of the X-Men movies. Despite my rant, the cautionary dystopian blather takes a back seat to the characters. Gone are the X-Men who don't matter, which is all of them except Wolverine and Professor X. Honestly now, who really gave a possum's posterior about the others? They were cardboard.

And after setting up the whole class warfare dystopia to justify the fight scenes, the core of the movie comes down to those two characters, both aging poorly. Professor X in the throes of Alzheimer's provides some meat for Patrick Stewart to sink his teeth into. It's not the pitch perfect crazy old man we saw in Star Trek TNG's "All Good Things", but it beats the hell out of the soul crushing exposition he has been given in the previous films. Jackman for his part keeps up, although his character's emotional range tends to be angry-and-depressed or angry-and-violent, but he too is dying, evidently poisoned by his metal skeleton. Nobody here is terribly good at comedy, so attempts at light-hearted interludes are only marginally successful, but then it's not a lighthearted movie. In the end, over the course of the series, it is about two people who fought to death for something without achieving it. They know it, and see it, and even their final battle was merely to keep the status quo. After all their efforts and pain, they left the mutants in exactly the same place they entered, with an isolated, fragile sanctuary. It is as if their lives were for naught. The image of a futile future will likely resonate with the aforementioned hand-wringing demographic, also.

As for my view of the future, well, John Wick: Chapter 2 should be streaming soon...

[Cars] Acura Shakes

My car has become a source of stress. About 15,000 miles ago it developed a disturbing vibration at freeway speeds -- 65-70 mph. I put on a new set of tires at the behest of the dealer and that reduced it, but never eliminated it. Subsequent visits to to the dealer have just had them tell me that I need new tires again. Um, no. Sorry but if that's the best you got, you're phoning it in.

I now have an appointment with an independent mechanic. I suspect one way or another the problem will get solved eventually, but it's left a bad taste in my mouth regarding Acura.

I know that my Acura TL is essentially a gussied up Accord. It has more sound deadening, a bit better interior materials and a high level of base componentry, the engine is tuned for better performance (and thus requires premium gas), it's built in Japan instead of Marysville OH, but other than that it's an Accord.

What you are also supposed to get with Acura is the premium customer service experience. I have seen nothing of that. The folks at the dealership are very polite and personable. Not surprisingly, the dealership is generally less crowded and has a more pleasant atmosphere than one of the big mass market dealerships. But that's about it. It has no more generous a policy regarding loaners. They do wash and vacuum your car anytime you bring it in but that's a fairly trivial sacrifice and the local Ford dealer does that also. The mechanical capabilities of the dealer shop are suspect, as are most dealer garages.

I will say that apart from the vibration issue the car is a astonishing great. It has no rattles or squeaks, the engine is strong and smooth, the transmission is pretty much unnoticeable, and it handles with an agility far beyond my capability to disrupt it. The electronics are a bit of a weak spot -- it struggles to communicate with my phone, nav system is only so-so -- but that is likely because it is old generation tech. If the vibration problem hadn't forced me to re-evaluate, I'd probably be delighted with the car, but one bad experience forces you to look more closely at things.

As usual, I find myself working through decisions in the course of a blog post. I have in my head the idea that if the independent mechanic gets the problem sorted, even if temporarily, I'll trade the car in on something new rather than risk the vibrations returning. There are some advantages to this. I have been feeling the need for a little more utility, by which I mean something that can carry my bike without a bike rack and that I can take to Menard's without the need to tie down my trunk half open. I am absolutely not a fan of SUVs, CUVs, XUVs, etc., but there are aspects of convenience I can't deny. Or if I really want a premium customer experience, I'm told Lexus or Mercedes is the way to go. That suggests my ideal vehicle would be a Lexus or Mercedes SUV that is just big enough to carry my bike. A dark horse would be a Lincoln version of the Ford Escape (the correct random three-letter name of the model escapes me).

Here I thought this Acura had an outside chance of being the last car I owned before I bought a car that drove me. Then my place of employment moved, adding 20 miles a day to my commute. If it's to be replaced it should be replaced now before it totally depreciates.

On the other hand, I hate buying a car. Just hate the whole process. I hate it so much I have to stop right here to avoid going on a 1000-word rant. So I guess I'm saying if I do end up getting a new car, brace yourself for a string of auto dealer hate posts. Lucky you.